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Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Scientist's Spoiler-free Review of Hereafter

I saw Hereafter yesterday after not having been in a movie theater (yay, Netflix!) since Christmas Day, 2007. It was worth the trip.

Hereafter considered life after death through perspectives that were normal, ordinary, and, thus, realistic. One of the people I was with said, "I thought [a certain part] would be more spectacular." I, on the other hand, thought that the normalcy of the after-death portions of the story were what made it extraordinary. It didn't treat mediumship, near-death experiences, or after death communication as anything out of the ordinary. The same cannot be said about how some of the characters viewed these phenomena, though.

Outsider responses to the after death experiences were realistic; that is, people responded either with dismissive disbelief or with frenzied hunger to experience it oneself. The most interesting interaction from the dismissive front was an experiencer asking a non-experiencer if he could even entertain the possibility that there might be something on the other side. His response was something like, "If there was, wouldn't they have found proof by now?"

Let's dissect this argument. First, who are "they"? This is not an infinite number of chimps at an infinite number of keyboards sort of deal. It's not like every scientist in the world is working day and night on this question and they still haven't found anything. There are only a handful of us working with limited resources on this topic so progress is destined to be slow.

In addition, life after death is not a topic typically tackled by science. In most parts of the world, the idea of researching the possibility of life after death is ridiculous. It's like saying you do research on whether the sky is blue. It's just a given that we survive the death of our bodies.

And for most of history, religion, not science, was the authority with all the answers. When, relatively recently, the two split and science also became an answer machine, it disregarded all things religious as superstition. Since the afterlife was the domain of religion, science said, "No thanks. You keep that. We'll be over here." Science didn't start looking at the afterlife with any real gusto until the 1880s and, again, it's not like there were a lot of people working on it (then or now).

Then there's just the logical fallacy of the argument. The absence of proof for something is not proof of its absence.

The additional realistic facets from the film I wanted to point out were the existence of fraudulent "communicators," people demanding readings from a medium, and the presence of information in a mediumship reading that the sitter (who often demanded the reading) didn't necessarily want to hear.

There was a wonderful tongue-in-cheek montage of a grieving individual visiting numerous types of practitioners claiming that their trance mediumship, instrumental transcommunication device, or gallery readings (by the organization's "Senior Sensitive") were sure-fire ways to communicate with the deceased. I just hope the public recognizes that those people, in reality, are the minority.

I thought the common thread of people presupposing that mediums are at their beck and call and somehow required to connect them to their loved ones was an interesting one. My only experience with that is the people who spend a few bucks during some of our online fund raising events in which Windbridge Certified Research Mediums (WCRMs), whose readings usually cost at least a couple hundred dollars, provide "mini-readings" and then become indignant when they do not receive an entire reading's worth of information. (Most people at those events, however, are appropriately grateful for the opportunity to receive communication and support afterlife research.)

And finally, Hereafter addressed the issue of information being present in a reading that the sitter did not necessarily want to hear. I was concerned that the movie was inaccurately leading the viewer to believe that everything a medium says is correct and comes directly from the "mouth" of the deceased; so I was slightly relieved when at least this unwanted information aspect arose. Undesirable information, when verifiable, can be more evidential to a sitter than other types of veridical information because it cannot be dismissed as wishful thinking, the medium just saying what the sitter wants to hear, or the medium acquiring that information psychically from the sitter.

Overall, I thought that Hereafter did a great (but not perfect) job of representing the reality of several types of after death communication and related phenomena. Like I said in my previous post about an episode of the TV show Castle, I am always happy to see references in the popular culture that paint these experiences as normal. They are making it less and less taboo for people to see a medium, be a medium, or talk about their near-death experiences or personal after death communication experiences.

Thank you, Clint.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Mediums in the Media

I am surprised and encouraged by the frequency with which mediums and psychics are showing up in ‘mainstream’ movies and TV shows.

In this group, I am NOT including the “reality” shows in which deceased people are hunted down like vermin while people’s experiences are entirely discounted and environmental monitors which were not developed for any such purpose are waved around willy nilly.  Author, parapsychologist, and seasoned field investigator Loyd Auerbach just wrote a really terrific article about that type of show in our most recent issue of Winds of Change, our members’ e-newsletter.  Here’s my favorite excerpt: “Technology is the result of science.  But do you consider yourself as being scientific when you use a microwave oven?  Or use a metal detector?  Texting on a cell phone?  One can teach a chimp—heck, probably your dog—to get excited if the meter starts reacting on a magnetometer, but that hardly means the animal is being ‘scientific.’”  Chimps, indeed, Loyd.

It is the more “normal” shows that are featuring mediums and psychics that (sometimes) have me smiling.  The mere regularity with which these individuals are showing up means that it is truly becoming less and less taboo to SEE a medium or psychic or BE a medium or psychic.

For example, later this month (10/22), the movie Hereafter staring Matt Damon and directed by Clint Eastwood debuts.  Damon plays a medium and another character in the movie has a life-changing near-death experience (NDE).  Watch the trailer here.

And just today as I had my lunch, I watched the latest episode (“He’s dead, she’s dead” …hee hee hee) of the TV show Castle, a crime dramedy about NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett and mystery novelist Richard Castle who shadows Beckett as part of research for his books.  In this episode, a psychic medium is murdered.  Castle takes the stance of accept-er and Beckett acts as the deny-er.  (I won’t use the words ‘believer’ and ‘skeptic’ because I don’t think accepting the reality of psychic abilities requires blind faith and I don’t think denying even the possibility of such phenomena is being skeptical.)

There were a number of concepts portrayed in the show that I was pleased to see went along accurately with the research, politics, and psychology associated with mediumship and psychic abilities (collectively called “psi” for simplicity here)…

--Argumentum ad hominem.  Though Castle properly defines the abilities (“psychics can tell the future and mediums can tell the future and talk to the dead”), Beckett resorts to name-calling (“that’s like saying psychics are con-artists and mediums are con-artists and charlatans”).  At one point she even equates “belief” in psi to a belief in Santa Claus. Castle is more level-headed.  After Beckett calls him gullible, he says, “I’m not saying I can speak with the dead; I’m just willing to admit that there are people in this world who are more sensitive than me.” Our research findings back that up.

--Double standards.  Beckett finds it logical to dismiss psi outright but has no problem with other similar notions.  After she dismisses the link between the medium’s predictions and what comes to pass as “coincidence” rather than fate and later states that her “gut says” a suspect is innocent, Castle points out: “So you don’t believe in fate, yet your gut has magical properties.”

--Nature/nurture (also the topic of this week’s Two Cents Tuesday question).  The medium’s daughter also had psi experiences and more than once reported accurate information that she had acquired during a dream state.

--Personality types (i.e., the cops acted like cops).  In our research, we have mediums fill out several personality/psychological tests—one is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which assigns a person one of two personality types in four categories resulting in one of 16 four-letter types (for example, ENTJ: extravert-intuitive-thinking-judging).  We have found that 85% of mediums are personality subset NF, intuitive and feeling (the outside letters don’t seem to correlate to mediumship experiences).  According to the test developers, the professions with the highest percent of NFers are clergy (55%) and art, drama, and music teachers (54%).  The profession with the lowest—only 4%—of NFers: police and detectives.  They’re just different types of people, so it isn’t surprising that it is difficult for police to get behind information acquired through non-local (or as the journalist who recently interviewed Mark erroneously referred to it in her article: “non-vocal”) means.  When Castle laments that he is “surrounded by skeptics,” one of the detectives responds, “It’s called being a cop, bro.”  I was also pleasantly surprised that they included both possible explanations for why they couldn’t verify that the medium worked on all the law enforcement cases she claimed to: (1) the medium over-represented her involvement and (2) the agencies were hesitant to admit the use of psychic help.

--The psychology of memory.  In Castle’s recollection of a reading he had received from the murdered medium 8 years prior, he claims “she got everything right” which is simply impossible.

Though no one mentioned the more than a century of scientific research with mediums in the show, I was very pleased with how the title character stood up for psi (though not pleased with the sometimes shady activities of the medium).  I am hoping that with the continued presence of psi-associated phenomena in the popular culture as normal and ubiquitous, funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will follow.

Yeah, right.